Purgatory and Hell: Forgotten Destinations – Part I


Lucifer, King of Hell; Canto XXXIV of The Inferno, by Dante Alighieri; Illustration by Gustave Doré

Part 1 of a 4-part series: Part I | Part IIPart IIIPart IV

Part 1: Hell is Real, and You Could Go There

If one were to sample the doctrine of today’s sermons and books, one would think that every human being who has ever been and ever will be follows the high road to heaven. No matter that some paths are crooked, others straight; they all go to the same place—that’s the only destination on the other side of life. “God writes straight with crooked lines,” we read in the gleeful brochures for self-discovery workshops.

But there was a thirteenth-century poet, Dante, whose great poem Divina Commedia takes a different line. He thought that there were three possible destinations and devoted an equal number of cantos (33) to each one: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso. The titles of the three parts are revealing and worth a little thought, especially by those who are tempted to think that souls die only in order to rise upwards into eternal bliss. If we manage to push through the brambles of scholarly deconstruction and reach back to the simple words of the Gospels, we may even discover that Jesus Himself held similar views. Perhaps Dante, although he was a medieval Catholic (and medieval Catholics, as historians tell us with a hint of disdain, made a lot of things up), was not making things up after all.

This series of articles will present several meditations on the afterlife, with particular attention paid to the neglected habitations mentioned in the title. If we can grasp more clearly just a few truths about the world to come—something of its geography, so to speak, and the characteristics of its inhabitants—we may be able to infuse into our lives a greater yearning for the paradise we hope to attain by God’s grace, a deeper gratitude for the purifying power of divine love, and a wholesome loathing for the punishment reaped by unrepented mortal sin. As St. Thomas Aquinas says, “Let our thoughts. . .dwell on retribution, imitating the holy King Hezekiah: ‘I said, in the midst of my days I shall go to the gates of hell’ (Is 38:10). A mind which goes down to hell often in life will not easily go down there in death.”

*          *          *

The Catholic teaching on the two everlasting abodes of the afterlife is not a curious idea spun out by theologians; it is found explicitly in the New Testament. Indeed, there are few doctrines on which the inspired Word of God speaks with greater clarity.

In his first Epistle, St. John teaches the distinction between mortal sin, or the kind of sin that kills the life of grace in the soul, and venial sin, which displeases God but does not destroy the presence of grace:

If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal. (1 Jn 5:16-17)


The Last Judgement, Hell, circa 1431, by Fra Angelico

On the basis of this distinction (see the Catechism 1854–64), the Church has taught from the very beginning that unrepented mortal sin bars entrance into heaven, since the condition for entering heaven is that one’s soul be filled with the grace of Christ, and it is this grace that mortal sin destroys.

Similarly, tradition has interpreted Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet as a sign that he wishes to cleanse them of venial sins before they partake of His Body and Blood. In response to St. Peter’s statement “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!,” our Lord says, making an exception for Judas: “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over; and you are clean, but not all of you” (Jn 13:9-10). Eleven of the disciples were “clean all over,” but their feet were soiled with the day’s traveling; therefore Christ cleanses them of this lesser uncleanness.

St. Paul confirms the teaching on heaven and hell in countless places. Here are just a few:

Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience and well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. (Rom 2:4-8).

Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal 5:19-21).

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9-10).

One can well imagine St. Paul urging us today to pay attention to his words: “Do not be deceived”—do not be deceived by liberal theologians or psychiatrists, by the mass media or the powers of this world. There will be judgment and retribution for all men according to their deeds. It does not matter whether you think there will be, or whether you think it’s fair. God has made His intentions and plans perfectly clear, and He will not be talked out of it by anyone. His first and abiding mercy was precisely to tell us very clearly how we are to live in order to inherit eternal life, and what we must avoid doing if we will avoid eternal perdition.

Even if we had only the text of the Epistles, it would be possible to establish the truth of the Church’s unbroken testimony. But it is our Lord Jesus, the teacher of St. John and St. Paul, who speaks most fearfully and threateningly about the final judgment.

Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen. (Mt 22:13-14).

Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Mt 7:13-14; see Lk 13:24).

Not every one who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.” (Mt 7:21-23; see Lk 13:27).

Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. (Mt 13:41-42).

Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Mt. 25:41).

Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. (Mk. 16:15-16).

He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him. (Jn. 3:36).

While it would be unhealthy to become preoccupied with such terrifying verses instead of devoting one’s energy to praising God, seeking His will in prayer, and building His kingdom by a life of good works, nevertheless, if we forget them, if we encourage or allow others to forget them, or worst of all, if we deny their truth, we betray the integral teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ. To do this is nothing less than to betray the Person of Christ, for in denying His words, one denies the incarnate Word of the Father. Jesus came to save sinners who repent, who throw themselves upon the Father’s merciful love; He did not come to grant indiscriminate amnesty for the indifferent, the lukewarm, the unconverted, or the wicked.

Quite simply: eternity is at stake in how we live our lives here and now, what we believe, what we do and refrain from doing.

(This series includes material originally published in The Catholic Faith, vol. 5, n. 2, March-April 1999.)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email